California Unlawful Detainer Law

By Shelly Cato

A landlord can file an unlawful detainer lawsuit, also known as an eviction, to attempt to evict a tenant who refuses to leave a residential rental property upon the expiration or termination of the lease. In California, to legally evict a tenant, a landlord must follow a required series of actions, as described in the California Tenants guide.

A landlord can legally evict a tenant for a specific reason, such as:

  • Nonpayment of rent.
  • Lease violation.
  • Expiration of a fixed-term lease, after providing the proper notice, if the eviction is not a retaliatory action.

A landlord is prohibited from:

  • Evicting a tenant in retaliation for tenant exercising a legal right.

  • Performing a self-help eviction, such as changing the locks or shutting off the utilities. 

Tip

Different eviction rules may apply to cities with rent control laws, so always check with your local legal authority. For example, San Francisco has stringent rent control laws and eviction protections. Under its Rent Ordinance, in residential rental buildings built prior to 1979, a tenant can only be evicted if the landlord can prove at least one of 15 listed grounds for just cause eviction.

Written Notice to Terminate the Tenancy

In California, the first step in the eviction process is for a landlord to serve a tenant the appropriate written notice to end the tenancy. The form of this notice depends on the reason. The notice might be the required 30- or 60-day notice to end the tenancy and move, or the notice might give the tenant a specified time frame to correct the problem prompting the eviction, such as nonpayment of rent (three-day notice) or certain lease violations.

Landlord’s Rights and Filing an Eviction

If the tenant does not move out by the end of the notice period, or fails to correct the problem, the landlord can file an unlawful detainer action with the local Superior Court to legally evict the tenant.

Forms to start the eviction process are available on the California Courts website. All California courts use the same basic set of forms, but certain counties also require additional local forms. Check your local Superior Court website, or check with your court clerk's office for any additional local forms or requirements.

The main form is a legal complaint, which must include the following information:

  • Residential property address.

  • Tenants’ names.

  • Reason for eviction.

  • Copy of the notice served.

  • Past-due rent or legal damages, if applicable.

The printed and prepared forms are filed with the court clerk’s office, and a filing fee may apply. The landlord is generally responsible for following the appropriate service procedures or hiring a process server to serve the tenant a copy of the unlawful detainer complaint and any accompanying papers.

Tenants' Rights and the “Answer”

Under California law, a tenant has the right to submit a written defense to the unlawful detainer action by filing a written response, or answer, to the complaint. The tenant files the answer with the court clerk at the same Superior Court where the lawsuit was filed. The tenant has only a short period of time -- normally five days -- to file an answer.

Answer. A tenant who files an answer has the right to attend a hearing and present his side of the case. The court typically schedules a trial within 20 days of the landlord’s or tenant's request.

No answer. If the tenant does not file a timely answer, and the landlord has followed the proper procedure, the court can rule in favor of the landlord and order the sheriff to evict the tenant.

Tip

To find out more about the unlawful detainer process, including rights and responsibilities, look to the California Civil Code, sections 1925 to 1954.1 and 1961 to 1995.340. You'll also find a list of resources on the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development website.

The Hearing Process

In California, the unlawful detainer process is a summary procedure. Once the appropriate forms are filed, the process moves quickly. The Superior Court normally schedules and holds a trial where the plaintiff (the landlord) and the defendant (the tenant) are given an opportunity to explain their cases. The hearing generally lasts less than an hour, after which the judge makes a ruling regarding the case.

The Ruling

Tenant wins. If the court thinks the tenant has a good defense to the action, the court can find in favor of the tenant, and the tenant will not be forced to move. The landlord could be ordered to pay filing fees, court costs and sometimes even attorney fees, depending on the lease agreement.

Landlord wins. If the landlord wins, the court will issue a writ of possession, and the sheriff will serve the tenant a notice to vacate within five days of the date of the notice. If the tenant fails to move out voluntarily by the expiration of the five-day period, the sheriff can physically remove both the tenant and the tenant’s property and lock the tenant out of the rental unit.

Tip

While a landlord or tenant is not required to obtain an attorney, the eviction process can be complicated and have lasting effects. It is highly recommended to consult a landlord-tenant law attorney for assistance or advice in filing or defending an unlawful detainer lawsuit.

About the Author

Shelly Cato discovered her passion for sharing knowledge and has been writing legal content professionally for the last two years. Cato also works as an attorney and does pro bono work at local legal clinics. Cato has civil law experience in a variety of settings, including business matters.